5 Short Reviews of Dos Madres Books

Five Dos Madres books are reviewed by Alan Catlin in Misfit Magazine.

George Kalamaras, We Slept the Animal: Letters from the American West

Kalamaras picks up where Richard Hugo left off in 31 Letters and 13 Dreams. The conceit of Hugo’s earlier book was each poem was framed as a letter to a friend, generally a poet or writer, evoking place, their relationship, real and imagined, and well, life.  Kalamaras follows the exact same route and manages to capture personal, intimate connections without being overbearing, a danger of showing off connections with relatively well-known poets and writers. I read this collection in pieces, as it lends itself to sporadic readings, and there is no danger of losing your place or losing the thread. Kalamaras also evokes Hugo’s, White Center; the places, the people, the geography of minds. On the whole, reading along with George feels as if he is taking you for a ride around the country visiting all the literary hot spots and old friends as he goes.

Mary Ann Cain, How Small the Sky Really Dreams

I read this book after George’s, not realizing they were husband and wife, so it purely coincidental that they are paired here. Cain’s book is intense and focused, in the earlier sections, she is dealing with a difficult birth, fibrous tumors, operations, and cancer. Memories of her childhood and family are evoked and are at best, fraught, at worst borderline abusive and nightmarish. By the fourth and final section, “refigure”, Cain sees her life as being forever altered, a missing breast is mentioned, but so is a growing season, the rebirth that is the cycle of nature, of life.  This is a deeply personal work that effectively evokes the struggle of living and making the best of what we have. Her transformations are vital ones as are her words.

Peg Boyers, The Album

Boyers states, in her brief introduction, that these ekphrastic poems that can be read and appreciated without the attendant art works that inspired the poems.  After several test readings, with and without the images, she concluded that while the poems worked independent of the art, they worked better with them and readers tended to agree with her.  I am of two minds on this particular conundrum of the form. On one hand the poet has an obligation to create a poem that works on its own regardless of what inspires it, but of the two, inspiring image and art work, are inextricably bound, well, given the opportunity to go for both. Boyers and the Dos Madres publishing team of Robert and Elizabeth Murphy, have published a wondrous catalog of art and word.

Some of the images, eclectic in nature and broad in scope, ranging from Rembrandt and Durer, to much lesser knowns such as Casorati and Claus Vogelsang, Boyers largely succeeds in writing poems that work independently of the art.  “The Four Ages of Casorati”, in particular, is so well rendered one could imagine the original, while the Vogelsang remains elusive with or without the image. Of all these poems “The Garland of Four Ragas” most needs the attendant images if only because the art is something most readers, myself included, are less familiar with than selection from the Western art canon. Regardless, this is an excellent addition to a reader’s art catalogs and their poetry shelves. A book well worth returning to on both the images and the words.

John Bradley, Hotel Montparnasse: Letters to Cesar Vallejo

The roster of guests (characters) read like a roster of Surrealists and Modernists in the arts, both written and graphic. From Lenora Carrington and Remedios Vera to Vallejo and Badelaire, Artaud, Cocteau, Celan and a host of others. Guests are assigned jobs such as Kosinski is the librarian, Salvador Dali is in charge of pest control (too bad Burroughs couldn’t make it as an apprentice to Dali), Frida Kahlo is a health counselor, Sontag is justice of the peace, Gertrude Stein is Director of Entertainment, and, of course, Simenon is house detective.  Just from a partial roster of characters you can get the sense of the absurdist romp which can be read as a novella or as a book of poetic fragments, told in epistolatory prose poems.  Oh, and the hotel itself, is a character, not in the Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House, sense but in a management of the insanity going on inside its framework.

I read this book straight through as an enjoyable romp through the outsider avant garde cultural landmarks of the twentieth century. It can be read as an adventure in creativity with a Capital C . However, you want to read this one, the result is satisfying. If I had a top five list of terrific, unclassifiable books I read this ear, Hotel Parnassus would be near the top of it.

Roald Hoffmann, Constants of the MotionAnd Something That Belongs to You: a play

Constants of the Motion, is a kind of selected poems, broken down into seven sections, each delineating a theme of the author’s work.  To say that Mr. Hoffmann’s work is eclectic, would be a gross understatement, given his primary occupation is in the field of chemistry, for which he shared a Nobel Prize in the 80’s.  That a man has the inclination, time and interest, not to mention, ability, to write poetry at this level is in and of itself remarkable.  I was particularly drawn to the section II Poland 1941-1945 which recounts, briefly, how he and his family lived in hiding during the Nazi occupation of his childhood home.

This experience is the subject if his play, Something That Belongs to You, which delves into the lasting effect such an experience can have on a family through the generations.  Flashback from modern times to the years in-hiding, courtesy of a man they paid for their deliverance, and meeting the daughter of this man now, gives that terrible experience a totally different perspective.

The scope and depth of this play is both fascinating and emotionally wrenching, in a satisfying, dramatic way. But it isn’t without flaws. I found there was too much Deux in the Ex-Machina, in the opening scenes of the two-act play. God and his angels are personified, speaking as embodied angels, of what qualities would be incorporated into man. My sense is these scenes are meant to inject some humor into an otherwise dark play.  My overall impression is that all the issues in the play, unresolvable as many of them are, reach a dramatic resolution that is powerful without Jewish jokes and a rabbinical God plus minions.  Still, this does not dimmish my overall opinion that this is a significant piece of work that deserves more exposure.

It is difficult to review a play that you haven’t seen or, are not likely to. Still this play is novelistic enough that the strong characterizations, sense of time and place, are enought to immerse oneself in the eternally grieving bitter mother’s world view, in the son who barely remembers, and his middle-aged wife and teenaged children’s impressions of the revelation at the end of the play. The attempt at reconciliation and renewal are well handled and we can only hope, successful, for all the families.

Posted by Dos Madres Press